A pollinator is any animal or insect that spreads pollen from one flower to another. This means that nearly any creature can be a pollinator from time to time. However some species visit flowers so regularly that they are constantly transporting pollen between plants, and they win the title of “pollinator”. These animals and insects are so important to the plant’s reproduction that the plant species may not survive without them. In this article we will look at some examples of pollinators.
What is a pollinator?
A pollinator is something that spreads pollen from the male part of one flower, to the female part of another flower. This can any type of bird, animal or insect. In most cases, these creatures come to the flowers to collect pollen or nectar for food. While they are crawling around on or reaching into the flower, the powdery pollen gets dusted onto their face and bodies. When they move to the next flower, some of that pollen falls off and presto, the flower has been pollinated.
Why do plants need pollination?
Pollen, that powdery substance that makes some of us sneeze, is made by male plants. Pollen needs to be transferred from the male plant, to the stigma in the flower of a female plant. Once pollen is received by the female flower, the plant then has the material it needs to make seeds and reproduce. In effect, pollination is how flowering plants mate. Some plants (like cedar trees) use the wind to carry their pollen to other trees, but most need insects and animals to spread their pollen around. Let’s look at 16 examples of pollinators big and small.
Honeybees are famous for pollinating, and they’re one of the most important pollinators in the world. Most of the food you eat wouldn’t be possible without honeybees. Every year, people load up honeybee hives onto trucks and drive them all over the country, stopping at farms and orchards where the farmers pay them to leave the hives out for a few days and let the bees pollinate their crops.
There are many different species of honeybee, but the European honeybee is by far the most common. The honey they produce is another important agricultural product. While bees store large bundles of pollen on their legs to bring back to the hive, their bodies also become dusted and that gets transferred from flower to flower.
Bumblebees look like bigger, fuzzier honeybees. Their hives are often small, sometimes consisting of just 50 individuals. Like honeybees, they feed on the nectar from flowers and, in the process, carry pollen from one flower to another.
Bumblebees are less aggressive than honeybees, and less likely to sting you. Be careful though, because a bumblebee’s stinger doesn’t have barbs like a honeybee’s does, so one bee can sting you multiple times.
Hummingbirds are tiny, colorful birds named for the sound they make as they hover while they feed. Their wings beat so quickly that they hum. Like bees, hummingbirds eat nectar, and as they feed on nectar they pick up pollen on their feathers, and it will rub off on the next flower they feed on.
People living along their migration routes often put out hummingbird feeders filler with sugar water to attract these fascinating birds to their homes. Their ability to hover in place, and their iridescent feathers, make them a delight to watch.
Not all bats eat insects. The long-nosed bat, among others, commonly uses nectar as a food source before the fruit they usually eat is available. The flowers they visit have evolved to be deep and narrow, so when they feed they must push their head and chest into the flower to get the nectar. They can’t avoid getting pollen on their fur.
When they fly to the next flower to eat, that pollen then rubs off on the flower, pollinating it. Bats are some of the only pollinators who will end up eating the fruit of the plants they pollinated. Bats like these are especially common in the southwestern U.S., where they’re crucial for pollinating the cacti in the desert.
Every species of butterfly is a pollinator. Adult butterflies feed exclusively on nectar, and in the process they spread pollen from one flower to another. Ironically, while adult butterflies are crucial for the survival and reproduction of the plants they feed, the caterpillars they produce can be a huge threat.
Caterpillars are voracious eaters, and if enough caterpillars manage to feed on a single plant they can actually kill it. Most plants have evolved to survive being eaten by caterpillars, and since they’ll be crucial to the plant’s survival once they’ve metamorphosed into butterflies, some of them even attract caterpillars on purpose.
It’s unusual, but ants can be pollinators too. Many, if not most, ant species are drawn to the nectar in flowers. After all, it’s a sweet, sugary liquid, and we all know that ants are drawn to sugar. Unfortunately for the flowers, ants are so small that they can usually enter the flower, eat their fill of nectar, and leave without ever coming into contact with the pollen.
Still, they do occasionally spread pollen between flowers, and while they’re not considered important pollinators, they do contribute to pollination.
Wasps don’t just look like bees, they behave a lot like them too. Wasps have more variety in their diet and do not exclusively eat nectar, but they do like it. Just like bees, when they feed on nectar they pick up the pollen from the flower, and they spread it to the next flower they land on. While they don’t pollinate as many flowers as bees do, they’re still very important pollinators.
Moths can be thought of as nocturnal versions of butterflies. Their life cycles are nearly identical. Both moths and butterflies begin life as caterpillars, which eventually form cocoons and transform themselves into their adult forms.
As adults, moths are much more diverse than butterflies. Moths evolved first, and there are many more species of moth than butterfly. So, not all adult moths eat nectar (some don’t even have a digestive system) but many of them do. These moths pollinate flowers just like butterflies.
You’ve probably seen hoverflies without realizing that’s what you were looking at. They’ve evolved to mimic the appearance of bees and wasps, and their mimicry is very effective. Most people never realize that the small, yellow and black flies hovering over the flowers are harmless.
Some species of hoverfly eat aphids, which helps protect crops from these pests. Others eat nectar, just like the bees they are mimicking. These species are important pollinators, too. As a result, nearly all species of hoverfly are considering highly beneficial to the agriculture industry.
Yes, mosquitoes. The tiny blood-sucking parasites we all love to hate. They aren’t all bloodthirsty, though. In fact, only the females drink blood, and even then it isn’t their only food source. In most species, the females only start eating blood when it’s time to lay their eggs because they need the extra protein to reproduce.
Males and non-breeding females eat nectar and fruit juices. As they feed, they spread pollen around. Their small size and lack of any body fur or hair makes them much less effective pollinators than bees. They aren’t particularly important pollinators, but they contribute far more than most of us realize.
We don’t think of ourselves as pollinators, but we’re actually some of the most important pollinators in the world. A lot of the plants we rely on for food have to be hand-pollinated because they aren’t naturally occurring species. Still others are hand-pollinated because their aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees to pollinate the entire crop.
Sometimes plants are artificially pollinated as part of breeding programs meant to create new varieties of plants. All told, humans end up pollinating more plants than many of the other species on this list. There are many ways this is accomplished, but often soft brushes are used.
This is a family of smallish birds native to Australia, New Zealand, and much of Polynesia. They have long, narrow beaks that enable them to reach the nectar in flowers. In their native habitat, they’re believed to be the most important pollinators.
Researchers believe that in Australia, most flowering plants evolved with almost complete dependence on honeyeaters for pollination. This is unusual, since plants in most of the world rely on insects more than birds for pollination.
Similar to honeyeaters, both honeyeaters and sunbirds occupy the same ecological niche as hummingbirds do in North America of extracting nectar from flowers. Sunbirds live in Africa and Eurasia. They use their long bills to probe flowers and feed on nectar, which makes them important pollinators.
They also eat insects and spiders, which is why they’re sometimes called spider-eaters. This helps them to survive when flowers aren’t in bloom and they have no source of nectar.
Countless fly species pollinate flowers. Flies are among the most common insects in the world, and many of them have evolved hairs all over their bodies which capture pollen. Some researchers even believe that flies pollinate more than bees.
This is because flies are often more numerous than bees, and unlike bees, they don’t have to take the pollen back to the hive. Bees use pollen for their own purposes, and flies don’t. So, all of the pollen that sticks to the flies could end up on another flower.
In Madagascar, lemurs pollinate many different flower species. Lemurs are primates and have many similarities to monkeys. Lemurs love to feast on the nectar of flowers, and they use their hands to pull the petals apart to get to the nectar more easily. Still, they have to stick their whole face into the flowers, and their fur gets saturated with pollen. When they move on to the next flower, they spread the pollen around.
Beetles were actually some of the first insects to pollinate flowers during the Cretaceous period when flowering plants were first evolving. Many species of beetle are pollinators, whether or not they eat nectar. Some species actually prefer to eat the flower itself, others eat the nectar.
Beetles are among the most essential pollinators. Even predatory species like Ladybugs, which don’t eat nectar, often contribute to pollination as they feed on pests like aphids.